Crag Hotel, Penang Hill

The Crag Hotel was once a famous hotel, presently a derelict structure, on a hill shoulder in Penang Hill, commanding a panoramic view of Penang Island from a height of 833 m. The hotel was established by the Sarkies Brothers.

To tell the story of the Crag Hotel, and having pooled together all my research material, I decided to tell also the story of the Sarkies Brothers.

Crag Hotel, Penang HillCrag Hotel, Penang Hill (5 March, 2005)

The Sarkies Brothers are ethnic Armenians who hailed from Isfahan, Iran. They arrived in Southeast Asia at the fourth quarter of the 19th century. There were four of them: Martin (1852-1912), Tigran (1861-1912), Aviet (1862-1923) and Arshak (1868-1931). They were involved in various trades but were not yet into the hotel line.

The idea to go into the hotel business came about in 1885, when the Sarkies brothers met the Khaw family, who had their hands in various enterprises all the way between Penang and Bangkok. Seeing that the hotel industry may be more profitable than his auctioneering business, 23-year-old Tigran rented a large bungalow at 1A Light Street, Penang, and named it the Eastern Hotel. It opened to guests on 15 April, 1884.

Seeing how well the business was running, eldest brother Martin joined in the game. Together, calling themselves the Sarkies Brothers, they bought the Hôtel de l'Europe, which is located on the seafront of Farquhar Street, and renamed it the Oriental Hotel. Brother No. 3, Aviet, was persuaded to climb on board, and he became the manager of Eastern Hotel.

Even as the hotel business in Penang took off, the brothers were scouting for other premises. In 1887, they found a large bungalow at the junction of Beach Road and Bras Basah Road in Singapore. It belonged to the famous Arab trader Mohamad Alsagoff, who had a number of businesses in the area. The bungalow had previously been used as a hostel for the boys studying at Raffles Institution. Borrowing the Raffles name from the institution, the Sarkies opened the Raffles Hotel in December, 1887.

Within the next few years, the Sarkies Brothers blazed a trail through Southeast Asia, opening the Kartika Wijaya Hotel in Batu, East Jawa, in 1891, the Strand Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar, in 1901 and Hotel Oranje (now called the Hotel Majapahit Mandarin Oriental) in Surabaya, Indonesia, in 1910.

Meanwhile, up in Penng Hill, a Scotsman by the name of Captain J. Kerr had lease a plot of land and erected his bungalow named The Crag. The Sarkies brothers acquired the bungalow from Captain Kerr, and opened the Crag Hotel there in 1895 (I come across some newspaper articles mentioning that it opened in 1929, which is a bit far-fetched, as by then only one Sarkies Brother was alive. I suppose the year was derived from the inscription on the main bungalow of the hotel, which was probably erected in that year).

The Crag Hotel is said to operate until the Second World War. In 1955, it was leased to the International School of Penang, commonly known as Uplands School, to operate as a primary boarding school. The first intake of 60 pupils began classes there in mid January, 1955. The Uplands School occupied Crag Hotel and Grace Dieu not too far away, until 1977.

Apart from a brief use as the film set for the movie Indochine in 1991, the Crag Hotel site has been in disuse since then.

Revisiting Crag Hotel

Susan Dalziel was born in George Town, Penang, in July 1946. The Eastern & Oriental Hotel was her first home! Her family moved to Crag Hotel around August 1948 and stayed there for four months or so. She revisited Crag Hotel with her now deceased mother in 1999, and recounts below her experience of staying at the hotel:

We - my mother & I - lived in the Crag from about August or September 1948 until February 1949. We then went to Singapore! When we revisited, sentimentally, in 1999, we went up in the funicular railway to find the Hotel. We walked in the general direction, but in those 50 years much 'vegetation' had grown, so it was not easy to see from a distance. I remember my mother saying - "Well - we must be able to walk to it easily, as I used to walk from the Hotel to the Railway; me pushing you in a pram!"

When we got within 'touching' distance, after quite a trek, on tarmac roads now, we came to a rickety bridge over a ravine. There was a gentleman within shouting distance - so we "shouted"! There were also 2 noisy dogs, which we were assured were "No problem!" We went across the bridge and talked with the gent, who was in fact, the caretaker. He was happy for us to go and explore, once he heard our story, and we did! He told us about the Boys' School that had been in residence, from about 1955 ... I forget when they moved out, and that he was hoping it would be done up, and used as an Hotel again.

Mother went up those steps - as did I - into the body of the main building, and she was full of nostalgia. I think 1948 was a difficult time in her life - English rose, aged 29, shipped (in HMS Victorious; a Royal Naval ship that was transporting World War 2 brides from the Far East to England and was returning to the Far East and taking passengers) from England to Malaya (as the country was known then), via Hong Kong, never out of UK before to meet her new Australian Ship Captain, husband, who she hadn't known very long (!); discovering she was pregnant; (I was 'made' in Hong Kong!) and living then in the E & O Hotel. Father was at sea when I was born in the hospital in George Town and my first 'home' was the 'E & O'. She came out of hospital, back to the hotel, to be greeted only by the Concierge, who admired her baby! When my father returned some days later, he wasn't quite sure how to react to this new member of his family! I looked like a much smaller version of him - completely bald, like him, but I was without a beard!! He quite correctly decided it was far too hot for mother & baby on the coast and said it would be much cooler up Penang Hill. So, that is how we came to take up residence in the Crag. By the way, in 1999, when we returned, the E & O Hotel was paused in reconstruction, so we could not go in there. I see what a beautiful international hotel it is now! 5 Stars!!

In 1999, I tried in vain to open the cabin where we lived - in the grounds of the Crag. The main building housed the dining & sitting rooms; the galley and the bar and other public areas and the accommodation was in individual small buildings in the grounds. I think ours is still there, judging from the publicity photos for the new UK TV series "Indian Summers"!

Updates on the Crag Hotel

11 November 2012
According to a friend of mine, Boey CKS, there appears to be no progress on the development of Crag Hotel after the deal was signed (per last update below). The entire place was overrun with weeds and shrubs. If left in this neglected state, the buildings will be consumed by vegetation in 5 years. There was a transmission tower in the vicinity, but that also has been removed.

Approaching Crag HotelApproaching Crag Hotel (1 November 2012)
Author: © Boey CKS

View from the top of the steps of Crag HotelView from the top of the steps of Crag Hotel (1 November 2012)
Author: © Boey CKS

Former film set for Indochine at Crag HotelFormer film set for Indochine at Crag Hotel (1 November 2012)
Author: © Boey CKS

View from within Crag HotelView from within Crag Hotel (1 November 2012)
Author: © Boey CKS

The compound of Crag Hotel: there was once a football field hereThe compound of Crag Hotel: there was once a football field here (1 November 2012)
Author: © Boey CKS

The verandah at Crag HotelThe verandah at Crag Hotel
Author: © Boey CKS

The verandah was used in a scene in the movie Indochine, where actress Catherine Deneuve appeared as Madame Devries.

28 May 2011
Developer Sri Nisuh Sdn Bhd won the bid to develop Crag Hotel. The hotel would be called the Amancrag Resort. It will be managed by the Aman Group of Hotels, which also runs the Amanpuri in Phuket and the Aman at the Summer Palace in Beijing. The redevelopment project will cost RM37 million and the hotel is expected to open 36 months (3 years) from now. The historic building will be preserved and converted into a restaurant with a lounge bar. The resort will also include a world-class health facility and spa which is open to guests as well as walk-in patrons.

30 August 2010
On 1 June, 2009, the state government of Penang issued a tender for the redevelopment of Crag Hotel. The tender was closed due to financial and technical reasons. Now the state government is offering the hotel through a Request For Proposal (RFP), to be submitted to the State Secretariat by 30 August, 2010. Only comapnies with a minimum paid-up capital of US$100,000 will be considered for the proposed redevelopment. This is one of the avenues the state is undertaking to generate revenue, through Public Private Partnerships.

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